Jerry Dakin left his Manatee County dairy farm at 7:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 28, as winds from Hurricane Ian were building. Several of his dairy cows lay along a fence, some of them mooing as the night edged in.
“I came back at 3 a.m. to start milking and get everybody going. I thought cows were just laying there,” he says. His neighbor called him shortly afterward, saying that there were 30 dead cows along the fence line. He headed over to see what had happened, wondering if they had been hit by debris from the storm, but he didn’t see any debris or damage to their bodies.
The cause of death? Shock from the storm.
To save several cows who were stunned but still alive, a Dakin veterinarian administered molasses, glycol and vitamins—a remedy to stir the animals' energy, wake them up and get them going. It worked for some, but within a couple days, Dakin lost more cows.
"I've never seen anything like that in my life," Dakin says. "We’ve never lost more than 10 animals in a storm in all our years of dairying.”
In total, 250 dairy cows at Dakin died because of Ian. Dakin's brother, Cameron, who runs a dairy down the road, lost the same number.
Describing the stress the animals faced, Dakin says, “It’s sort of like if you were out in the ocean. You can only swim for so long. That wind was just—” He pauses. “It lasted so long.”
Dakin and his brother are multigenerational dairy farmers. Their father, Pete, started dairying in Maine, but after visiting Florida, he decided to move the family south. He proclaimed he’d “never milk another cow again,” but after he tried beef and chicken farming, he reverted back to milk in 1974. "Dairying is the only business where we made money," Pete conceded.
Last week’s hurricane inflicted more than $1 million in damages to Dakin Dairy Farms, and the Dakin family is unsure if the dairy will recover. It doesn't help that Hurricane Ian comes on the heels of Covid, when two years ago, lockdowns forced the farm to dump 7,000 gallons of milk a day due to lost business.
“You know, we want to stay,” Dakin says. “But, financially, we have to make decisions here.”
Dakin bought land in Myakka in 2001 and developed what became the only dairy farm in Florida open to the public, with tours, a summer camp, a farm market and a café. Dakin Dairy produces and bottles its own milk on the farm, grass-feeds its cows and practices sustainable farming through recycling and reusing resources. Dakin points out that he and Cameron are the last of 38 dairy farms that once existed in Manatee County.
When news broke of Dakin's troubles last week, he says he received so much help from the agricultural community, both locally and nationally, that his farm has become a hub for receiving and distributing supplies to individuals and animals throughout the area—including areas in Arcadia that have become difficult to reach due to flooding.
“Oh my God, it’s just amazing, the people in our community here," Dakin says. "You know, in the last two days we’ve had a hundred people come out here."
Volunteers have helped clear the dairy's meadows and fields of debris—like metal from barn roofs—so the cattle can walk without cutting themselves. "Right now, the goal is to get the cattle healthy and back into their routine—back into consistency," Dakin says. "Animals love consistency."
In total, Hurricane Ian destroyed 60 to 70 percent of the structures at the dairy. Dakin says it's too early to talk about recovery. He's focusing on the moment's needs and the outpouring of support from his community.
“I’m the kind of person who looks to the positive things, and a lot of big things are coming from this," he says. "I’m only dealing with the things I can control. I got major problems. But, you know, if you put yourself around great people, great things happen.”